Night and nowhere: Khujand to Istaravshan
by Ray Nayler
[ places - april 10 ]
The car is drifting slowly through a Central Asian city at night. This particular city is Khujand, but with the hazy effect of darkness, the idealizing pools of electric light, and the sameness of architecture here in the Former Soviet, the iron-jawed memorial in a park to the Great Patriotic War, it could be a city in almost any of the Central Asian 'Stans where I have spent most of the last six years of my life.
We drift past oversized, Stalin's Empire monuments of the Soviet Union in their hybrid style - a dash of ancient Rome, a sprinkle of Tamerlane, a Soviet Realist warp to the proportions and voila! Inside, the majority of them are now empty or nearly so. They smell of rotting plaster and bad drains, whitewash and dying flies. The sloughed-off skin of a retracted empire.
Between these stylized tombstones rise the newer buildings, depressingly angular structures in cut-rate blue glass and plastic that leave one with little optimism for tomorrow: these, too, will have to be torn down before this place has anything resembling a future.
Looming over both are the panel apartment buildings in a dozen essentially samelike variations on a theme, their concrete facades turned trash heap jumble by the addition of improvised balcony enclosures of any material available: cinderblock, brick, plastic windows, plywood: anything to reclaim those last few wasted meters, otherwise abandoned to the city's smog, noise and - perhaps most importantly - the gaze of others. There is something optimistic about a balcony - something of the boulevard, of participation in the life of the city, of an expectation of the positivity of public space. Bricking it off is a perfectly practical way of saying "fuck other people" and retiring within one's nautilus shell for good. The balconies that are left open are simply hung with drying sheets: the boulevard as Laundromat. In the night they flap on their lines like dim spirits.
On the corners of the city stand policemen, in groups of two or three or four, carrying rubbed-looking AK 47s with politely folded stocks. Enormous hats shade their faces, and identical caterpillar mustaches shade their lips. Traffic police pull drivers over with their flashing batons like stubby light sabers. On every corner is a driver trying to explain his existence to some uniformed buffoon flipping through his documents. The side of a lonely hotel looms up in meaningless spotlight. Why is energy being wasted on this particular wall?
Writing in notebooks in the dark is one of many skills that traveling has taught me and so I am taking notes in the back seat of the car in the Khujand dark. I am in the back seat because I do not feel like dying tonight, and I would have my seat belt on if it worked, but it does not. The plane shook in dreadful turbulence descending out of the Fan Mountains over the city, and I was painfully reminded of my own mortality and lack of control. I should not have looked so closely, when boarding, at the old fuselage, the patches on this recycled Boeing dumped on a third-rate airline with loose safety standards. I don't want to die stupidly, spiraling down terribly in the swirling dark surrounded by strangers and debris - I want only to be home with my wife and not traveling.
Toward the outskirts of the city two men sit engaged in conversation at a café, at a far corner table, in a pool of light, their gesticulations visible from the passing car. Circular, stripeless watermelons peculiar to Central Asia lie stacked in a vacant lot like cannonballs. At a checkpoint near the city limits the bighats shine flashlights on our passports. Now on the open highway, we pass the same, failing blue Soviet truck again and again, it seems. Not certain? It asks in white Russian stencils over its bumper. Don't Pass! I'm listening to The Feelies on my headphones and watching grains of light against a low, black line of hills in the distance. The bushes along the side of the road are perfectly grey in the headlights. One only relates them through experience to the color green.
I am traveling to Istaravshan to conduct recruiting of students for the US Government, and I resent it. I don't want to be here in the hinterland of Tajikistan. I don't enjoy my job. I'm not interested in meeting new people. I want to brick off my balcony. I don't want to wander around some dusty town in the middle of Ramadan with all the shops and restaurants closed, being stared at and having "hello" shouted at me in weird cartoon voices. I'm not keen on eating hard-boiled eggs and raisins in some grotty hotel room because there's nothing to be had in this fasting country whose future increasingly appears to be a dismal, fundamentalist Mohammedan past.
But the very fact of driving at night catches hold of me, and my mind, with most of the visual information subtracted by the dark of unlit highway, begins to juxtapose other trips at night in my mind, and I find myself remembering other travels, other places in-between. I remember the Great River Road - I am nineteen and getting out of the car to take a piss is an intimidating feat with the walls of impassable, hissing and creaking foliage closing hard in on the two-lane highway. I am twenty-two on an Amtrak train stopped on a siding and I awake in my uncomfortable coach seat to a field of fireflies, glow worms and stars that give the illusion of floating in space. I am twenty-seven in a taxi rushing back from a trip to Turkmenabat, and our driver is passing everything on the road and we're convinced we are going to die. I'm twenty-nine and on a train in southern Kazakhstan and the only light for miles on the empty steppe is a lonely whitewashed train station where a few figures bend and scuttle in the night living their impossible-seeming lives. The web of memory pulls these and other disparate threads together, sorting by levels of light and movement. I'm nineteen and crossing over the Santa Cruz mountains in a thunder storm. My vision is occluded, objects seen reduced to icons, and my memory comes alive. I slide along the 4th dimension of my life like a bead on a string necklace, dreaming with my eyes open.
I have become more afraid, lately, of vehicular travel. I had thought this was because I feel my luck is running out. After all, how many battered airplanes can one fly in before one of them drops from the sky? How many daredevil taxi rides through the dark before one goes tumbling into a ditch? But now, comparing all these memories, I decide it is because I have much more to live for. Never before have I felt needed in the way I do now, or cared for. Where once I was a young and callow man almost as light and unattached as a gas, with little to lose but myself, I am now a solid, with a feeling of rootedness in something. It is a strange and a new feeling, and there may be nothing so fear-inspiring.
We pass a gas station shaped like a UFO, completely empty and abandoned-looking, and yet lit-up against the darkness, a noir set waiting for its scene. The even, identical rows of trees planted along the side of the road have, over the years, died into a random pattern. All of the survivors are now twisted into shapes of their own. A traffic cop is drinking tea at a child's desk on the side of the road, the gate of his checkpoint lit up with red Christmas lights. We drive around the gate, slowing but not stopping. He tips his enormous hat to us and returns to his tea. We have arrived in the middle of nowhere, and safely.